When I arrived as a freshman, I found the Yale community billing itself as proudly, fervently capital-F feminist. My first few weeks here did not disappoint — I was surrounded by strong, brilliant female role models, all the communities that I joined declared themselves feminist spaces and my conversations were passing the Bechdel test on a regular basis. Left and right, women were validating each other, insisting that they had the freedom to do whatever they chose.
Refrains of “you do you” were ubiquitous, and like most of my peers, I embraced them. Sex and sexuality were the subject of many early conversations with my female friends — about forays into hookup culture, excursions to Toad’s, whether the condom bag in the hallway looked a little emptier this morning than it did yesterday afternoon. Everyone seemed to be making the most of their newfound college freedom, and Yale plied us with a variety of resources to accommodate as much sexual choice as possible.
As time went on, however, I started to pay closer attention to exactly which choices were being accommodated — and what even qualified as a choice to begin with. The sex education programs I attended as a freshman almost exclusively discussed and validated lifestyles in which people actively choose to participate in sex at college. We examined all the risks and various scenarios in which sexually active students — especially women — might find themselves. But there were no discussions of students who might want to remain abstinent and how they were to navigate Yale’s sexual climate. In fact, no one seemed particularly interested in having non-despairing conversations about the absence of sex in their life.
I am abstinent and secular, and I am also an unapologetic intersectional feminist. Balancing my preference to be abstinent, my womanhood and my feminist philosophy is not at all difficult or contradictory in my mind, but it seems to be incongruous with Yale’s broader, aggressively sex-positive feminist spaces. This is especially true in queer circles where there is an even greater expectation that one talk openly about sex and conceive of one’s identity as fundamentally connected to sex. Talking to others about my sexual modesty and how I’ve experienced it at Yale has been a disappointing and isolating experience. My female peers tend to react with either incredulity or suspicion. They incorrectly perceive my attempts to talk about abstinence and sexual restraint as a kind of slut-shaming; they act as though the experiences and reasons behind my decision somehow make me less of a feminist.
The prevailing narrative on campus is that most people are having sex and feminists must be sexually liberal. Accordingly, campus resources — both material and emotional — are overwhelmingly allocated to those who are sexually active. Very few options exist for abstinent women at Yale to talk about their feminism or how their college experiences have been affected by their decisions. Any formal conversations on this subject are largely left up to religious or conservative groups to hold privately. Besides friendly reminders from freshman counselors around Screw season that no, I didn’t have to sleep with my date if I didn’t want to, there was zero institutional acknowledgement that sexually conservative lifestyles exist in the Yale community.
This reflects a deeper problem with our campus consensus on sexuality: Abstinence and modesty are not viewed as real choices. Women who participate in a sexual lifestyle are the only ones making “real” decisions with “real” risks. Women who do not are perceived as passive and without sexual agency. There is no recognition of abstinence as a legitimate choice or of the women who choose it as autonomous actors. There are no resources for dealing with prude-shaming or protecting oneself from sexual assault when one chooses to be abstinent. There is no respect for the many reasons why women of all races, sexualities and political backgrounds might choose abstinence: to deflect objectification or fetishization, to avoid perpetuating stereotypes or simple preference.
But Yale’s culture of relentless sex positivity effectively silences these narratives. At best, most Yalies consider modesty to be a state of sexual neutrality. At worst, they condemn it as an unfortunate product of indoctrination or patriarchal oppression, and the women who participate in it as prudish, brainwashed, unfeminist, repressive, repressed.
Rather than treating sexually conservative women as a threat or an unpopular opinion, we should practice what we preach and respect the lifestyles and choices of all women. We deserve better.
Sherry Lee is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .